Surviving the Groaning, the Sighing, the Smirking

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Letters to a Youth WorkerEditor’s Note: This letter is excerpted from CYMT’s book Letters to a Youth Worker, edited by Mark DeVries.

Dear Youthworker,

Sometimes I’ve wondered, “Which am I? Youth Leader? Mother? Hmmm…Youth Leader? Mother?

I’m both.

And when I really dig deep, I begin to realize that the only difference between the two is the fact that the baby didn’t actually emerge from the body of the youth pastor (which may, in fact, be why the youth pastors I know look so young, so fit, and so energetic!)

Birthing aside, the mission of both of these roles is remarkably the same: to love, inspire, motivate, and shepherd teenagers into their own personal relationships with God, the one relationship that can give them the confidence to multiply God’s light to others.

I write to you from a peculiar perspective for a book like this one. I’m not a youth pastor. I’m not a professor. I don’t write youth ministry books.

But after 26 years in the financial services industry, 23 years of marriage, 20 years of motherhood, and more than 10 years of being a volunteer youth leader at my church, I’m coming to realize that parents and youth pastors have a lot to learn from each other.

And so I start this letter with a word about investing.

Youth ministry IS about investing. One thing I do know to be true is that good investments yield good dividends. The goal of any investment is a profitable return. And your investment in young people—your faithful actions, your positive spirit, your persistent conversations, your healthy decisions, your own love for God—will yield a return, though we may never get to see the full investment report this side of heaven.

My first real lesson in investing in children came when my oldest daughter was three and a half years old. I was busy in the kitchen trying to prepare dinner; she stood at my side. I was paying little to no attention to her; the immediate goal was to get dinner on the table as fast as I could before somebody fell onto the floor from acute hunger pains.

I heard her little voice say, “I have the hiccups Mommy, and I can’t make them stop.” Her frustration was clear.

Without ever turning my head, much less looking her in the eye, I told her what any normal parent would have said, “Hold your breath. If you hold your breath the hiccups will go away.”

I was in high gear throwing together a wonderful dinner, ignoring this very frustrated child desperately seeking guidance from Mom. But I could hear as her frustration escalated to higher and higher levels. Soon she was stomping her foot to get my attention. Then, at the end of her rope, she cried out, “It’s not working Mommy! See, I am holding them and it’s not working!”

Holding them?

Confused, I turned to find standing before me my three and a half year old girl with her hands holding her breasts wondering why, oh why, her hiccups had not yet subsided!

Her misinterpretation of the word “breath” for “breasts” sent me into uncontrollable laughter. I did the one thing that should be declared illegal for parents and youth leaders alike—I laughed at her! And right before me I saw her draw into her shell just like a tortoise being approached by a predator. Her reaction was understandable. She reached out for help and got laughed at. So she shut me out and tearfully ran away.

As a youth pastor, you will have students who will come to you with their “little” problems, but they are problems that feel huge to them. I know you have a lot to do, activities to plan, lessons to write, phone calls to return. But I hope you will learn from the mistake I made with my daughter almost two decades ago.

The little things in life, so often, determine the big things. Today you set the stage for how you will respond to the individual young people God has given you. So respond…DON’T REACT. Over the years, I’ve made my own list of “reactions” to avoid with my own teenagers and with the teenagers with whom I have the privilege of working:

There will be countless times when teenagers will come to you for guidance. Invest in them! Stop “cooking dinner” for one full minute. Look into their eyes. Listen, really listen. Make them feel as if there is nothing more important, at that very moment, than what they have to say. Then, be open to the guidance God may have for you, even if the only thing you can do is be with them, even if the hiccups don’t go away.

Angela Martin, Survivor of Parenting Teenagers

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Angela has been in the Financial Services industry for over 27 years and has held a variety of sales, training, and management positions over the course of her professional career. Outside of her professional career, Angela’s greatest joys in life are her two teenage girls whom she finds to be her greatest investment. She is also very active in her church where she and her husband serve as youth mentors and Sunday School teachers for the High School youth program.

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